Wall Street Journal Columnist on Career and Reinvention Interviews Landmark Forum Leader and Landmark Graduate Part 2
Alexandra Levit: Turning the tables a little bit to Michelle Tennant, who is a Landmark Education student, and her entrepreneurial journey is featured in the book, New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career. Michelle, I’d love to ask you some questions. Are you up for ’em?
Michelle Tennant: I am, sure.
Alexandra Levit: Great. Well, first of all, can you tell us – I know a little bit about this and David knows a little bit about this _____ our listeners know a little bit about the life that you had prior to changing your career.
Michelle Tennant: Yeah. It’s really interesting because I’m listening to David talk about what is actually taught at Landmark Education, and I’m reflecting on my own path. When I first decided to take some Landmark Education courses, I remember that my whole reason for taking courses was to get time management. I was really into how can I control my calendar ’cause I was really a busy person, and I had been a very successful theater producer living in Chicago who had then moved into writing early childhood curriculum, moving into the nonprofit arena, and really excelling. I won awards for my curriculum, I was working with the governor of Ohio implementing and executing national and statewide programs for early childhood educators, so, on one hand, people would look at me and say, “Wow, you’re very successful,” yet I didn’t really feel a sense of satisfaction.
By the way, David was talking about the satisfaction that one would get when they’re vacuuming and then getting a little piece of lint, and I’m a cleaner, so I always get that euphoria when I find that piece of lint when I’m cleaning, but when it comes to my career, I really was losing some of the joy in actually moving through my daily existence. I’d have to call Governor Boynavich at the time and have to really pull myself out of things, and what really happened for me was I really looked at my career. I always liked to call myself, at that stage of my life, and this was about a decade or so ago, I really was the Joan of Arc.
I mean I was your typical nonprofit executive who – I mean I literally, in the middle of a board meeting, turned down a bonus because money was not what motivated me. I had – and in your book, you really talk about it, Alexandra. I don’t know how much you want me to go into, but I had some experiences as a child that really had me want to be the savior, if you will, of children, of really doing good work, and that really fulfilled me, to really give community service, and so when I had my boss who said, “You make your goals this year, you’re gonna get a bonus,” I really turned it down, and I really looked at – ’cause money was not motivated me.
If anything, I was running away from money. I see my life sort of as on default at that point. I’d had certain experiences as a child and as a young woman, and then all of a sudden, I had made career choices to be a nonprofit executive, a writer, and then really saved no money. But I mean a lot of people do that, you know? Like “Why are we activists?” and whatever, but we’re not really sure like what’s driving us. Does that make sense? Is that – do you want me to go into some of the specific examples when I was a teenager and why I hated money?
Alexandra Levit: Well, I think what would be really great because David was talking so much about breakthroughs, what was the specific moment – and I’m not sure if it tied into your Landmark Education or not, but what was the specific moment when you realized that things had to change, that you weren’t being fulfilled by this _____ path that you were on?
Michelle Tennant: Sure. Yeah, there were three breakthroughs actually that I wrote down while David was talking. I’m like, “Well, what really were my breakthroughs?” and one was – oh, my gosh, I was a complainer, and it was really around making choices. My complaints were related to the choices I was really unwilling to make, and then No. 2, it was around loathing money. I really hated to make a lot of money ’cause of whatever I had it mean about myself. And then the last one was – the last breakthrough was I would actually live on default versus creating my life. So, let me talk about those breakthroughs.
So, the first one, which I think – I see and meet people every day who do this. They’re complaining and so forth. It used to be that when I would have a new choice to make, I remember when I almost took the job to be an early childhood curriculum writer. I remember it took me two weeks to call all the people in my life, to call my parents, to call my boyfriend, all the people that quote/unquote advised me on my life. Two weeks. “Should I take this job? Should I not?” Blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And then I would complain about – like to have a conversation with me on a daily basis, it would be the worry around “Well, should I do this new job? Should I move to this other state?” Blah-blah-blah. It was an arduous experience.
After I did the Landmark Forum, one of the things that they teach that I actually took on in my life from there forward was the ability to make powerful choices. Quickly and instantly knowing hey, this is the choice that I’m making. And it kinda put my – now today, 16 years later when I make choices, there’s probably only one other person that I check in with, and that might be my husband, it might be my business partner, or it might be a trusted friend that – you know, maybe it’s a personal matter or something like that, but that’s it, and it usually takes no, not two weeks; usually takes a day.
Now, for an entrepreneur, that’s incredible because when you’re actually making powerful choices about your career move, your business moves, your clients, and so forth, that’s what’s really required, so I’m really grateful for that breakthrough. I’m no longer afraid to make money. And then the last one is that I didn’t even realize that I was living my life on default. I didn’t realize until I was sitting in Landmark classrooms in a chair and we’re going through some conversation about what’s actually behind the choices that you’re making, and then I would sit there and –
The one that I really remember, Alexandra, I’m sitting there in the Landmark Forum, and here I was, I had come for time management, right? And David, you do this all the time, you can – something about your parents, right? So, your parents are ___ having this whole conversation about my parents and my dad, and what comes to mind is this conversation that I had with my dad when I was in eighth grade about Nikes. My dad was a retired military sergeant. He then worked at the VA hospital as a nurse. My mom stayed home. And so, when we got something like a Nike pair of tennis shoes (and I went to Catholic school, so, you know, your shoes were very important ’cause you had the uniform), it was a huge, big deal.
And I remember we were driving home from getting those shoes, and he said to me, “Now, Michelle, I worked a whole day for those shoes.” Remember that, right? And I hated that he said that, and every time I wore those shoes, I felt bad that my dad had to work so hard for these shoes. I don’t know, for years, I kinda held that in my heart, and I actually resented that he said that to me. And there I am in my early 20s in the Landmark Forum, sitting in the classroom chair, going, “Why am I thinking about this with my dad?” And then I realized that I had actually been living like money – like, you know, we shouldn’t work that hard for money, people – or maybe we should – some type of entitlement – I don’t know, I had all these emotions and decisions around the stupid pair of tennis shoes.
So, after the weekend was over, I drove home to my dad and I surprised him. I had a conversation with him, and I said, “You know, I’m sorry.” He goes, “For what?” ‘Cause we were always close. My dad died a few years ago, but just a super, super man. And I said, “Dad, I’m so sorry I held something against you since I was in eighth grade about these Nike tennis shoes.” He was like, “Oh, my God, I had no idea.” And I said, “Yeah, and I’m really sorry about that.” He goes, “Yeah.” He goes, “You know, you should have the freedom to make money.” We had this whole empowering conversation around the ability to make money.
And that’s the one breakthrough that all of a sudden I stopped making money wrong. I stopped making the pursuit of money wrong, and everything that I had made up about those stupid little Nike tennis shoes, and then I could – years later, as I decided to make my career choice after and then pursue money as an entrepreneur so that I could make a huge difference in the world, I would often call my dad and ask for his opinion around money, and before that, because of that resentment, I just wouldn’t talk to him about that. So, that was my big breakthrough.
Alexandra Levit: That’s huge, and it probably led to an improvement of your relationship with your father.
Michelle Tennant: Totally. It totally did. So, here I went to get a better calendar for the weekend, and what I got instead was this really cool relationship with my dad, you know, and a little freedom around money and the things that I was actually perceiving around money.
Alexandra Levit: So, Michelle, in the seminar that you just mentioned, the Landmark Forum, you learned to – what you said to me was called borrowing some other brains. Can you tell our listeners how this helped your creativity in reinventing your job?
Michelle Tennant: Sure. The borrowing some other brains and, you know, I think it’s really important – I mean you talk about it in New Job, New You and the importance of when you’re – how to make a career move, right? So, in the chapter that you wrote about me, which, you know, thank you so much for including me in the book, Alexandra, I realized that when I was making a career change from the nonprofit world into the entrepreneurial world that I borrowed brains in a more efficient way.
Before, I talked about how I would go out and just ask everybody and their mother. I mean I would go and go to the grocery store and ask the teller what she thought, you know, the check-out clerk, what she thought of something. I’m a talker, so I would ask everybody and their mother. Now, I really look for someone who can listen to my commitment on what I’ve created for my life. So, it might be, you know, I wanna make – I wanna have this profit margin in the year blah-blah-blah, which is very distinct from the way I used to talk, and then I would then check it out with someone who’s listening for that commitment, whether I’m actually gonna put something in existence in my daily life, my calendar or whatever, and then I actually then can have a conversation with somebody about my commitments and what I’m doing.
So, when I’m borrowing another brain, if you will, I mean I still like to take seminars at Landmark Education because it provides me a network of people that I can say, “Look, next year I really wanna travel more, so how can I create my job or what I’m doing next with my work so that I can travel more?” And I might create something like for the – when you talk about New Job, New You, one of the things that I think about that I created after doing Landmark was instead of a New Year’s resolution, which sometimes fizzles for people, I like to create like a theme for the year or a possibility that I wanna usher in for that next year.
So, I remember one year, I created adventure, and so that’s when I took up whitewater kayaking, and then all of a sudden, I had this new hobby, which before, I was just a workaholic. I really had very little hobbies, and then all of a sudden, I had this brand new hobby, kayaking and being outdoors, so then I started to talk to people like, “Okay, look, I’m really committed that this next year I have a lot of adventure. Talk to me about how you might actually work out a virtual office situation, a virtual working situation, so that you might be near nature and so forth so that you can actually do these fun adventures,” and so, then that other brain, that brain I’m picking, they’ve actually given me ideas over the years to pursue that stuff.
So, now I find myself living in the Great Smoky Mountains in the middle of a beautiful forested area that’s right near some whitewater rivers, and I can take a lunch break and go kayaking. I’m telling you, that was not where I was headed when I was a nonprofit executive. I would’ve – I probably wouldn’t even have a hobby.
Alexandra Levit: That’s so cool. And you told me that you actually emulated, in your quest for adventure, Richard Branson, who’s someone that you admire greatly, and that you actually had the chance to work with Branson. Tell us about that.
Michelle Tennant: Okay. This is really good. So, I don’t know about you, but I call business suits, and I’ve always called them, you know, ’cause I grew up as a Catholic schoolgirl, so I hate uniforms, right? So, to me, a business suit – now, I’ll put on my power suit and all that stuff, and I always did when I worked for the State Department of Ohio and would be next to the helicopter with Governor Boynavich and all that stuff, but I still quietly called them the monkey suits. _______ all my friends ___ like, “Oh, God, I gotta put on this monkey suit,” ’cause I was in theater before, and I just saw it as another costume in life, right?
Now, think about Branson. Branson never wears those suits, right? So, I would watch him on TV and just really look at him, and especially when I took on opening my own company. And by the way, when I decided to do that, I just moved to a new state and just had it happen. It was really like, you know, talk about embracing risk and your blind spots, you know, like what David was talking about. I just – I don’t try to work it all out anymore. I just go for it and I embrace adventure. I embrace risk. Those are two things in my breakthroughs that I am like, okay, I’m gonna create my life, and I’m gonna have risk in it and I’m gonna have adventure in it, and then that’s what really informs me now.
So, if it’s a little scary, a little risky, I kinda know that I’m on the right track, whereas before, I would take two to three weeks to really talk about it to everybody in my life. Okay, so, here I am, looking at Branson, and I’m like, “God, you know, he travels all over the world. He’s always wearing jeans. He always looks so cool, like he’s having a good time.” And I thought, “How can I actually do that?” And he’s got such a massive influence, right? So, I’m like, you know, I’m really – and so I started to go to – I started to really look at and design my life like how can I actually be such a successful entrepreneur and make a huge impact?
‘Cause I still have that passion to make a difference in the nonprofit arena, but rather than being on the executive end and making, you know, $30,000.00 a year and not being able to pay all those student loans off that I had once had that are now paid off, now I really look at like how can I generate enough income this next year so that I can really impact all the pet charities I’m committed to, the nature charities that I’m committed to, and really being a philanthropist, which I think I created that in the money seminar, David, at Landmark. There’s a money seminar, and I think that I created like a 25-year plan on being an entrepreneur and a philanthropist ____ they actually take you through over a ten-week class where you’re actually creating that, and that’s when I really looked at Branson’s life.
And so, today I’m like, “Okay, to play at Branson’s level, I better be playing at a global level.” So, just a month and a half ago, I was – I now have a public relations firm, it’s called Wasabi Publicity. I also have other companies, like a technology firm that does Pitch Rate dot com and we do Press Kit 24-7, all this stuff related to really publicizing yourself in the world. Well, I’m doing this event in Calgary, in Alberta, Canada, and Branson’s coming to it. And I’m just tickled ’cause I’m like, “Oh, one of the guys that I completely admire is gonna be at this event.” So, I really dig in and I’m like, “Look, you know, we’re gonna get him some interviews and stuff.”
So, I had the pleasure of actually talking to CNN’s “American Morning” about Branson and really pitching him from the publicity side, and it was – it really was satisfying ’cause I really do think that he’s doing great work in the world and really is one of those entrepreneurs that is also making a huge impact with his nonprofits. So, that was just a pleasure.
Alexandra Levit: Oh, how wonderful to hear about your journey through all of these different things you’ve been through in your life ___ being a nonprofit exec – well, for writing for children first of all, then being a nonprofit executive, and then your journey into entrepreneurship. It’s really fascinating, and I hope everyone has learned that a career is not typically a straight line, that people like David and Michelle have taken exceptional journeys where they’ve learned a lot about themselves, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s taken a period of years, and that’s okay because some of the fun and some of the meaning is actually in the exploration, not just the end point.
Well, I wanna thank David and Michelle for joining me today. I hope our listeners got a lot out of this, and I want to thank the listeners for taking the time to hear our stories today. For more information on Landmark Education programs, I’d like to invite you to visit www.LandmarkEducation.com.
Thanks so much, and we look forward to being in touch with you.